Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy can’t prop up a soulless ‘Victor Frankenstein’

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Victor Frankenstein': Monstrously uneven but inventive, with a bit of Sherlock thrown in (review).

Is the big studio creative well that dry and desperate that it was an imperative to trot out another Frankenstein movie? “You know this story.” The first words spoken in “Victor Frankenstein” should have served as a warning to the filmmakers, who pretty up Mary Shelley’s well-trod tale of man’s ambition gone awry into a slick steampunk-accented, fantasy-action flick.In “Victor Frankenstein,” Victor (James McAvoy) makes Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) his protegee and partner in an experiment that goes very, very badly. ( Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox) CLEVELAND, Ohio — “Victor Frankenstein” opens with this observation: “You know this story.Victor Frankenstein, Paul McGuigan’s new film starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe, is a bit like the most famous iteration of The Monster itself.

This summer, screenwriter Max Landis managed to kick up a bit of controversy when he publicly wondered about the box office failure of his stoner-action-comedy American Ultra. This doubtless explains “Victor Frankenstein,” a pop romp that exhumes Mary Shelley’s famous monster-maker for a jaunty bromance with his bestie, Igor.

The nut of his discontent was that Ultra, despite being “better reviewed” (though still, in fairness, fairly mediocrely reviewed) than most of the other films in the Top 10 receipts, still lost to “a sequel, a sequel reboot, a biopic, a sequel and a reboot.” It lead to him to ponder why “big level original ideas don’t $” (it was on Twitter, in case that’s not obvious), and conclude he might better off writing “Thor 2” ad infinitum. This latest look at a man and his monster honors and dishonors Mary Shelley’s 1818 source novel and the umpteen big and small screen incarnations that have been sci-fi and horror mainstays for centuries. It’s a hyperventilated resurrection that owes less to Shelley (or most Frankenstein flicks) than to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes diversions, which turned Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. This isn’t quite an origin story, it isn’t quite a remake, but it’s definitely a gruesome abnormality that should never have been brought to life. Landis, son of ’70s/’80s all-star comedy director John, was more philosophical/less entitled than some of the coverage of his comments seemed to imply, but he’s nevertheless kind of an odd banner-waver for originality in American cinema.

I can’t think of any other reason for the very silly thriller “Victor Frankenstein” to exist, other than as a spooky-season one-off and a reminder that Daniel Radcliffe, even when tarted up with a hunchback and a fright wig, is never less than endearing. (Would somebody please fetch Professor McGonagall and have her turn this entire movie into a water beetle? McAvoy’s V.F. is a twitchy, shouty nutter who bangs his head wild-eyed against support beams while Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the hunchbacked medical assistant Igor, wonders how it is that his character is somehow forced to be the normal one.

He is, instead, played by the decidedly prettier Daniel Radcliffe as a circus performer with an inconvenient and easily treated back cyst, and Victor Frankenstein is imagined as a rakish devil-may-care rogue who can turn action hero at the drop of a dime. Granted, he’s not wrong about almost everything being a rebooted sequel, but though he manages to stuff plenty of quip and zip in his screenplays, Duchamp flipping over the urinals he is not. Igor and Victor — who meet at a circus where the former is a freak but the latter is merely collecting dead animal parts he can assemble into a monster he intends to bring to life with electrical charges — soon find themselves roommates living together in a kind of mad-scientist man cave where they try to revive the fly-eaten remains of one or more dead chimps.

Igor begins the film a pathetic, hunchbacked circus sideshow freak and conveniently self-taught physician with aspirations of greatness and a crush on beautiful trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). Ultra was in the direct lineage of Tarantino bloody cleverness, while his biggest success so far, Chronicle, put some topspin on the superhero genre, albeit without any characters from the Marvel or DC stables.

And please send someone to check on the resting place of “Frankenstein” creator Mary Shelley, who’s surely rolling in her grave.) So, it’s around 1860, and here we have Igor — who is not, more’s the pity, pronounced EYE-gore, as is the character in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” a classic to which this film is the distant, sniveling cousin who doesn’t even merit a Thanksgiving invitation. In “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), the assistant is called Ygor and, somewhat confusingly in terms of monster genealogy, played by Bela Lugosi, of Dracula immortality. Played with his usual slightly abashed charm by Radcliffe, Igor is a circus hunchback/doctor (apparently Victorian circuses were full of multitaskers) who’s swept away by Dr.

Apart from a few agreeably 1930s-style spooky moments in the lab, the film seems mainly to amuse itself coming up with ways to work in lines like, “It’s alive!” and “Yes, master” as it proceeds to an inevitable climax in a remote castle where “the new Prometheus,” as Victor calls his creation, comes disastrously to life amid thunder and lightning. Frankenstein handily dispenses of Igor’s disabling hump, and with a back brace, new set of clothes and a haircut, transforms the circus freak into a proper gentleman and his new lab partner.

By going exactly where you think it’s going, “Victor Frankenstein” doesn’t so much invent a fresh origins story as it essentially repeats, with a few uninteresting new details, all the same stuff we’ve seen in the other 457 Frankenstein movies. Enter Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), a medical student at a London college, who, it will turn out, is scouring the circus grounds for spare animal parts. Though his character leaves much to be desired, McAvoy’s gleefully power-mad and charismatic performance is a delight, and his alpha-scientist posturing plays well off Igor’s sensitive passivity.

The movies invented the hunchback assistant, who first appeared as “Fritz” in the 1931 Boris Karloff “Frankenstein,” and only gradually, over many transfigurations, became the familiar Igor. Our yet-unnamed hero can intuit where the bones and organs are and, with the help of a dandy gent, snaps things into place and she’s breathing once more.

Together, the pair dive into the grotesque work of reviving dead matter, gathering and sewing together bits of deceased animals (mostly chimpanzees), and reanimating the whole with an abundance of electricity and a tool called the Lazarus Fork. The animation of this pathetic, disturbing creature was the fork in the film’s road where it resolutely takes the path of least resistance, eschewing the deeper questions of life, death and humanity that are the book’s hallmark in favor of jump scares and poorly edited action sequences.

A whipped dog, Igor works as the lowest-level circus performer, a job that mostly entails his serving as the center attraction in a brutal round of kick the can. He takes him home, sucks the pus out of his hump (the only truly great moment in the film; look for it in GIF form soon), puts him in a brace and tells him to shower.

Say it with me: “It’s alive!” ‘Victor Frankenstein,’ with Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance. Frankenstein, seeing the clown’s medical brilliance, helps him to brawl his way out of the soul-crushing circus, sets him up in his murky laboratory, then drains the young man’s giant back cyst that’s supposedly caused his lifelong deformity. The brainiest the film ever gets is with a suspicious inspector, whose meddling proves fodder for the sorts of facile God vs. science conversations best left behind in college dorm rooms. It’s pointless to bemoan Hollywood’s never-ceasing flow of remakes, reboots and retreads — such is the 21st-century lot of public-domain properties. Landis and director Paul McGuigan — whose touch from directing the Benedict Cumberbatch TV Sherlock is put to good use tracing over anatomy, whether in medical diagram or rotting horror form, and is utterly wasted every time another bad CGI shot of all of Olde London or a mad experiment starts up — spend the rest of their time fleshing out what exactly makes a doctor and his assistant so mad.

It’s better, instead, to hope for fresh perspective and respect for the source material or, at the very least, a firm grasp on what has made the source material a lingering pop-culture artifact. “Victor Frankenstein” has grasped none of it. McGuigan spends the first 15 or so minutes at that 19th-century circus, a fever dream of a sequence that is so good it makes you believe the filmmakers really have concocted a new way of looking at the story. Radcliffe make a fine pair of scoundrel-heroes, particularly after Victor rescues Igor from the circus and performs an amusingly revolting operation featuring a siphon and bucket of pus before shooing him off for a shower and a shave. The least interesting aspect of Frankenstein’s monster is the imaginary mechanics that give him life, but it’s that fake science that gets so much of the spotlight.

We see the dust and squalor, the violence and the beauty of the circus through the eyes of Igor, who scurries through the noisy chaos so stooped under his hunch he’s almost on all fours. Well, the monster is, but the movie isn’t, despite Radcliffe’s best efforts and McAvoy’s completely unhinged performance, made up of equal parts grins, cackles, babbling and eye-bulging. Using animal-part discards from the local zoo — apparently heavy on the chimpanzee — they end up stitching together and electrifying what’s best described as a homunculus.

It takes the bulk of the movie to get to the monster, which here is so bulky a grunting homunculus you have expect to hear it say, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Handily, Igor also turns out to be a genius of a kind, an expert draftsman and amateur sawbones who’s eager to help Victor with some of his dodgier scientific experiments. Victor’s early encounters with death (changed here from the book) are still backstory, so the present tense is a great bit “get on with it!” The dithering that takes center stage, including early experiments, antagonism with a local detective (Andrew Scott) and Igor’s slow realization that Victor’s hubris will lead to doom, is all woefully dull. Both McAvoy and Radcliffe do their damnedest to inject their own charm here, but breathing life into the warmed-over parts of pop-psychology is trickier than the anatomical kind. I can’t say the movie is without pleasures — Frankenstein’s discussion of Victorian-era in vitro fertilization to an audience of astonished ladies, for example, and Jessica Brown Findlay’s excellent wrangling of a stunning red velvet cloak — but it’s mostly just a lot of noise and thunder.

This leads to a chase sequence that – disappointingly – transforms the movie from very nearly an art film into a big-tent extravaganza of tiresome excess. This push-pull dissonance continues throughout, as more chase and special-effects scenes barge into what, in its bones, is a superbly acted story about friendship, loyalty and obsession. Its badness isn’t flamboyant, it’s just in the doldrums. (Points must be given to that other recent, disastrous rehash of a known-property-sans-copyright, Pan, for at least swinging for the fences.) Yet despite the utter lack of mirth or wit to be found, the film thinks it is really clever, making a reference to the Mel Brooks parody and, even worse, offering an in-joke referencing San Diego Comic-Con.

There’s Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a Scotland Yard detective who carries a rosary and is none too pleased about the “wrathful forces” Frankenstein seems to be “toying” with. This push-pull, amped up by the intrusion of a haunted, moralistic Scotland Yard inspector (Andrew Scott) as well as the “support” of a Richie Rich-type (Freddie Fox) with a hidden agenda, sends Frankenstein into full-on crazed scientist mode. One sequence, in which a hodge-podge of animal parts is readied for the lab, is at least playfully gross, but later moments just throw up their hands and trade any character development for jaunty music and shots of our characters laughing. (Perhaps McGuigan was hoping to inspire fun by osmosis?). This emphasizes the movie’s rather loose relationship with the passage of time, from the quick and absurdly seamless Pygmalion transition Igor makes from near-animal to civilized scientist to the creation of the monsters (there are two).

By the end, in which life-giving white lightning spasmodically spurts all over the frame, it’s fair to say that every other Frankenstein film you’ve seen, even the parodies, have had more flair than this. McAvoy might be able to make himself froth at the mouth while screaming “It’s alive!” but no one concerned ever manages to make the movie feel like the same thing can be said of it Sparks fly — about a million of them — in a loud, unruly, thoroughly improbable lightning-fueled battle for survival that reunites a guilt-ridden Igor with his savior.

Franz Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops,” a beautifully condensed philosophy that can be applied to “Victor Frankenstein.” The title character is not the crazy megalomaniac playing God we’ve seen in other movies; he’s a man drowning in his fear of death. But McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland” and the “X-Men” franchise), normally no slouch in the acting department, overdoes the mad-genius bit, often making his character seem less human than his creations. As for the final Frankenstein monster: It’s a soulless, violent hunk of who-knows-what missing the tragedy or pathos that could have given the film the depth and profundity it so desperately lacks.

In the introduction to the 1831 edition, she wrote: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” They got both the chaos and the invention.

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